By Steve Graf
Over the course of an angler’s career, there are times and situations that can turn deadly really quickly. How you react when you’re in one of these unexpected disasters can be the difference between living or dying. Your ability to remain calm is very important in maintaining a clear head and thinking things through. Today, we’ll go over one of these life-or-death events that this angler had to live through.
During the course of a bass tournament, things can go wrong. You hit a stump and destroy your lower unit on your big motor. You run into a log with your trolling motor and break the shaft. You blow a fuse, and all your electronics stop working. You lose your aerator system with your live wells and all your fish die. But there’s also the possibility that your batteries go dead, leaving you without the ability to use the trolling motor. This is what happened to me during a promotional tournament sponsored by the Horseshoe Casino.
For three or four years, the Horseshoe Casino sponsored an event in which they brought in all their “high rollers” and hired 20 to 25 of the best anglers in the area to guide these guys while they fished for a $10,000 purse, a “winner take all tournament.” It was truly a fun event with some great guys who were just looking to go fishing and have a good time. But make no mistake, each wanted to win, and they would sell their mother down the river in order to get the win. Horseshoe paid us (guides) well to take these guys out for a two-day tournament. We fished from daylight till about 1:00 each day and had to be at the Horseshoe for the weigh-in by 2:00.
One of these events was on Red River and this is where one of my worst nightmares unfolded. My partner and I were fishing and doing pretty good, when around 10:00 AM that morning my trolling motor batteries went dead. At the time, we had about 14 pounds of fish in the live-well with three hours of fishing left. Well, let’s just say the wind was not our friend, blowing about 15 to 20 MPH out of the south, so not having a trolling motor was going to make fishing very difficult. So, I decided to go back close to the boat ramp we launched from and let the wind push us down a stretch of bank that I had caught good fish off of before. We made one pass down this 150-yard stretch and culled two good keepers that gave us about 16 pounds by 11:00 AM with two hours left.
After we made that first pass, we ended up by a boat dock where people had a couple of houseboats tied up. Again, the wind was really blowing hard and as we drifted, we got hung up on the boat dock and I had to try and push us off. There was one piling that was in my way and as I was trying to push the boat away from this piling, my hand slipped off and into the water I went! One thing I learned when I hit the water was not just how cold the water was, but that the pullover jacket I had on, which was made of Burma fleece, was equivalent to a huge sponge. Understand this, you cannot imagine how absorbent Burma fleece really is. The minute I hit the water, I gained 25 pounds of extra weight on top of my 230-pound frame. I went straight to the bottom and landed like an anchor being dropped from the Titanic.
The first thing that went through my mind was, “This is not good,” as I opened my eyes and realized I was in a bad situation in 15 feet of water. I attempted to try and remove my pullover, but it was as if I had been shrink wrapped with this Burma fleece jacket. There was no getting it off, so now I’m just trying to figure out how to get back to the surface. The piling my hand had slipped off of was about 4 feet away from me, so I started walking on the bottom of the riverbed and wrapped my legs around the piling and started trying to shimmy my way up. Problem was, the piling was covered in algae, and it was like a monkey trying to climb a greased pole. Finally, I was able to get enough grip with my shoes, that it allowed me to get my head above water. I’m not sure how long I was under the water, but according to my 75-year-old partner, it was at least 2 minutes. He thought I had drowned and was in total panic mode.
After surfacing I asked him to throw my life jacket to me. Even though it was laying in the driver’s seat in plain sight, he could not see it. At this point there was no choice, it was either swim to the bank or try to get back to the boat. Getting to the boat, in my mind, was a priority as my partner was on the verge of a heart attack! At this point I pushed off the piling and swam towards the boat and lifted myself back into the boat with the help of the trim switch on the motor. Totally exhausted, I laid on the back deck of the boat for about 15 minutes trying to recover and gain my energy back.
Once fully recovered, it was time to get these wet clothes off. This is why you should keep a complete change of clothes in your boat at all times. Once changed out, we went back to fishing…. against my partners wishes. But as far as I was concerned, we were in it to win it and we needed to get to 18 pounds to have a shot. Well, we ended up in 3rd with a little over 16 pounds, but to say it was an adventure is an understatement.
After it was all said and done, I realized on my drive back home that day just how quickly things can take a turn for the worst. But looking back, the thing that stood out from this experience was that I never panicked. For some reason, I was able to maintain my composure, think clearly and slowly process my situation, and find my way back to the surface. Talking to a game warden one day about my experience, he told me that most drownings take place in water 4 feet or less, all because people panic and lose their thought process…when all they really had to do was stand up. Till next time, good luck, good fishing and don’t forget your sunscreen.